Here are two facts: I am a big purchaser of artisanal bread, and artisanal bread is expensive. I am entirely willing to pay $10 for a handcrafted, certified organic loaf that delivers honest flavor, outstanding texture and, preferably, maximum nutrition. But when half of it sits uneaten on the counter for several days, I become anxious. I am entirely too thrifty to throw several dollars’ worth of bread in the garbage. So I incorporate stale bread into my cooking until there is nothing left but crumbs.
Sure, I have toasted leftover bread for breakfast, made grilled sandwiches with it for lunch, and made croutons galore for salads and soups. But as a former pastry chef and incurable sugar fiend, I tend to look at bread and think, “How can I turn it into a dessert?”
The obvious answer is bread pudding. But there are quicker and easier ways to turn a wedge of sourdough into something sweet at the end of the day. Here are a few:
Dessert French toast: French toast has all of the rich egginess of bread pudding, without the fuss. I hear that in France, French toast is commonly considered a dessert. You can make a single portion if you’re home alone and craving something sweet (not that I’d know anything about scarfing down a few slices of baguette dipped in egg, vanilla and cream, sautéed in butter, and topped with caramel sauce and ice cream when I have the house to myself). If ice cream and caramel sauce aren’t your thing, you can top your dessert French toast with fruit, jam, syrup, whipped cream or grated chocolate.
Sweet tartlets, bruschetta and panini: Leftover slices of peasant bread are easily transformed into individual fruit tarts. Just butter your lightly toasted bread, top it with some thinly sliced peaches, sprinkle with sugar and place under the broiler until the sugar melts and caramelizes. Or make sweet bruschetta: Toast the bread and top it with ricotta or goat cheese cheese, raspberries and a drizzle of honey. Panini are another option. Sandwich some nutella and sliced bananas between two slices of sourdough, butter the outside and place in a panini press for a few minutes.
Cobblers, crisps and brown betties: I wouldn’t use bland supermarket white bread to top a baking dish full of fruit, but cubes of artisanal bread make a cobbler topping. For a simple fruit crisp, use large whole-wheat bread crumbs, or call it a brown betty if you’d like.
During the summer months, I often use my leftover bread to make traditional panzanella, with tomatoes, herbs and a vinaigrette. While contemplating a large hunk of leftover pane di casa last week, I thought, “Why not try something similar with juicy stone fruit for dessert?” Before I toasted my bread cubes in the oven, I coated them with some melted butter and brown sugar. My peaches weren’t quite as juicy as my tomatoes, so I poured some sparkling wine over them, with the idea that it would give my panzanella a Bellini-like flavor. After the bread cubes cooled and crisped up, I tossed them with the sliced fruit and wine, and then topped each portion with a dollop of crème fraîche.
Panzanella With Peaches, Plums or Nectarines
Makes 4 servings
Use any top-quality bread here, but realize that the character of your bread will determine the character of your dessert. Brioche, Pullman or challah cubes will make a refined panzanella. Chewy cubes of sourdough will give you a more rustic result.
4 cups country bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ripe peaches, plums, or nectarines, pitted and thinly sliced
½ cup peach nectar or sparkling wine
¼ cup crème fraîche, mascarpone, or sour cream
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Place bread cubes in a large bowl.
2. Whisk together the butter, ½ cup brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and salt in a small bowl. Add to bread cubes and toss to coat.
3. Place coated bread cubes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until toasted and caramelized, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring once or twice for even toasting.
4. Let cool completely on baking sheet. Watch carefully, to make sure sugar isn’t burning.
5. While the bread is cooling, combine the fruit with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, mashing a fork to release some juice. Stir in sparkling wine or peach nectar.
6. Place bread cubes back in the large bowl and toss with the fruit. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until bread begins to absorb fruit juice, about 10 minutes.
7. Spoon into dessert bowls, top with any accumulated juices and crème fraîche and serve.
Photo: Sweet panzanella with nectarines and crème fraîche. Credit: Lauren Chattman